scattering clouds

What you need to know about website building.

The website itself is the third and last thing you need to put a website online.

Websites are extremely nuanced. The design, creation, maintenance, and marketing of a website is where most of the money lies in this whole industry.

But I won’t pretend to know much about website building, or the business around it. I find it just as confusing and overwhelming as the next guy. And I am learning how to build my own websites out of pure frustration and a deep-seated mistrust.

The thing is, websites are one of the biggest sources of misinformation in the world, right alongside social media and news outlets. You don’t know who or what to believe. Everyone out there is trying to get all up in your face, making claims like:

“Here’s how it should be done. TRUST ME!”

But if you look behind their intentions, you will always find an ulterior motive. Hell, even this blog and this article I am currently writing is driven by an ulterior motive:

I want to attract an audience.

If you are looking to learn how to build a website, I am sorry to disappoint.

What I plan to talk about here are the things I learned to look out for when building my own websites. I might go into detail about the steps to actually design and create a website in the future, but not right here and not right now.

Always be prepared to pick up and leave. ALWAYS.

Since I build websites as something of a hobby, my website building philosophy can be a little controversial. Because I prefer to work backwards and figure out an exit / backup plan first, before I actually get to work building out my website.

You hear about people changing or switching up their website building tools all the time, because each website builder suck in their own way. So always be prepared to leave at any given time, regardless of how or what your website is built with.

Nothing belongs to you.

I adopted this backwards philosophy because the idea of “ownership” is somewhat of an empty and meaningless concept when it comes to websites.

  • You don’t own your domain name. You lease them from a registrar.
  • You don’t own your servers. You lease them from a website host.
  • And unless you know how to create and modify your website pages and files using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript code, you don’t own your website either.

Your website is most likely built using proprietary tools and/or platforms that are developed, maintained, and owned by someone else. You simply lease access to their software and/or infrastructure, usually through a recurring subscription fee.

But the moment you lose access, everything you have invested in your website may disappear in a puff of smoke. It has happened to me, and it was a very unpleasant experience. Even when I followed best practices and have my backups at the ready.

Normally, you would list down all your requirements before actually choosing a tool or method to build your website. I, on the other hand, like to investigate as many tools as I reasonably can before deciding on what to build. And my biggest concern is what would happen to the websites I made if I were to quit or leave.

I might decide to quit due to any number of reasons, including:

  • Simply losing motivation or interest. Hey, it can happen to anyone.
  • Wanting to move away and try out a new website building platform.
  • Running out of time, energy, or resources due to other obligations in life.
  • No longer wishing to support the business who developed the website builder.
  • Sometimes, it’s not your choice. Your account may become blocked or suspended for no reason, and customer support is as helpful as a rotten sack of potatoes.
  • And all these website builders suck in various ways anyway. You’ll likely run into problems or limitations that force you to search for a new platform.

So make sure you have something to fall back on.

I don’t want to lose all the hard work I’ve done up to that point. I want to preserve the current state of my website until I am ready to move or resume work.

Ideally, my websites should remain readily accessible to the public, but in a no-risk, low-maintenance sort of way. It should not require constant babying (e.g. updates and other upkeep) to stay online, and it should not present a huge drain on my time and resources (e.g. minimal or preferably NO subscription costs).

If I decide not to keep my sites online, it should be easy to just pick up my work and leave. And I should be able to plop it back down again in a similar fashion and resume working with the same ease, at any time and on any given platform.

Yes, I realize this is a very roundabout way to bring up the importance of frequent website backups and good export/import capabilities. But it is because these two features are the ONLY concrete measure of your ownership over your website.

They allow you to take charge of your own data proactively, instead of relying on your website building infrastructure OR website hosting company to do their job right. Because there is no guarantee they will do a good job, and they certainly won’t own up to their mistakes and inadequacies until it is far too late.

If you do not have access to at least one of these two features, everything else is just a whole load of hot air. Anyone who attempts to feed you reassurances that claim “you own all rights to your content”, or “it will remain your intellectual property”, is sidestepping and trying to distract you from the issue.

Without the ability to export your website content and download a usable archive of your website data, you essentially have ZERO ownership of your website. The instant something goes wrong, you lose it all and have to start over from scratch.

And I guarantee something will ALWAYS go wrong. It’s just a matter of time. So you should always have an up-to-date copy of your website files and data in reserve.

Not all website builders will allow you to backup or export your website.

All-in-one website builders like Wix are infamous for this very problem.

When you search for a way to download or export your Wix website, you will find a support article from Wix that skirts around the issue. It is filled with nothing but a bunch of sorry excuses, insisting repeatedly that your website MUST run on their infrastructure for various “reasons”.

So what happens to your Wix websites when you stop paying for a subscription?

Well, Wix has an answer for that too: Your website will simply be reverted to a free Wix URL, and ads for Wix will appear on your website. And cancelling a premium plan will not delete your website. If you want a Wix website deleted, do it manually.

On paper, it seems fairly innocuous and consequence-free. When you stop paying, your website will be downgraded to a “free site” status, but it is still there on your Wix account. You can return at any time and upgrade it to a new premium plan.

But if you dig into Wix’s Terms of Use, you would find some worrying statements:

2.2. You undertake and agree to:

3. regularly and independently save and backup any of your User Content and the information that is being processed by you regarding your User Platform, including with respect to End Users, User Products, and any applications and/or Third Party Services used by you;

6.3. Loss of Data, Content and Capacity

If your User Account or any Wix Services or Third Party Services related to your User Account are cancelled (whether at your request or at Wix’s discretion), it may cause or result in the loss of certain content, features, or capacity of your User Account, including any User Content, End User data or other usage data retained therein, … . Wix shall not be liable in any way for such Capacity Loss, or for saving a backup of your User Account, User Content or End User data. Terms of Use, last revised April 8, 2021

Wix denies all responsibility for the storage and backup of your data, but makes no effort to remind you that your data is your responsibility. They even outright refuse to help you export or download your precious data from their platform.

It is YOUR problem, not theirs. After all, data storage costs money. And they have zero obligations to backup and retain your content if you’re not paying.

Very few users would read the Terms of Use in its entirety before clicking “I agree”, so good luck to you if you got roped into using a builder like Wix. You better figure out a way to backup your data immediately, even if you have to manually copy and paste everything sentence-by-sentence, image-by-image, and page-by-page.

Simply knowing that a backup or export feature exists is NOT ENOUGH.

Backups can fail for any number of reasons. So simply knowing that your website builder comes with an export or backup function is not enough.

You need to test out the feature yourself and discover what it actually does.

For instance, WordPress comes with a built-in export feature, but it only allows you to download a text-based XML file of your data. It contains links or references to your website images, but does not actually contain any image files.

That export feature is used for migrating or importing certain data from one live WordPress installation to another. And if you think you can fully restore a broken or dead WordPress website using that XML file, you’re in for a rude awakening.

Backups and import/exports are different features that works in different ways, but their terminology are sometimes used interchangeably because there is a certain degree of overlap in how they work.

As a rule of thumb, I like to think of backups as a full copy of ALL your website data, which can be used to restore a website to a previous state in case of total failure.

Whereas exports are usually partial copies or references to certain types of data, which can be imported independently without affecting other parts of your site. E.g. blog post exports, product data exports, theme setting exports, media file exports, order history exports, email list exports, custom post type exports, etc.

However, you might have the option to create a full export of all your website data, and conversely, it may be possible to create a partial backup of your website. So make sure you fully understand how each feature works in your chosen website building tool before you dive in.

If you don’t have access to either of those features, back up your data manually.

Try to have at least TWO copies stored in different locations, such as one copy on your hard drive and another in cloud storage (e.g. Microsoft OneDrive or Google Drive). Doing a bit of extra work (even if it’s a whole lot of copy and pasting) every time you make a major change or addition to your website might save you a lot of trouble in the future.

Also, an untested backup is NOT a valid backup. Because you might run into issues trying to restore from a backup file. You do not want to discover what those issues might be for the first time… while simultaneously trying to restore a broken website.

So create a staging site (if available) and test out your backup data. You should be able to recreate a working version of your live website from a full backup.

Never assume that your website builder or host will take good care of your data. Always err towards a healthy dose of paranoia, and make sure you have working copies of everything that may be important to your site.

Narrow your scope and build incrementally.

I will not teach you how to actually build a website in this discussion, because it depends largely on your website building tool of choice. But I can tell you my preferred approach for creating websites.

Start with an MVP.

Create a minimum viable product (MVP) before trying to work on anything else.

If you want to build a new brand, you might want to start by creating a logo. Before the logo is complete, don’t get distracted trying to plan out the number of pages to have on your future site. Likewise, if you need to build an ecommerce store, don’t get distracted trying to set up a blog. If you need a blog, don’t get distracted trying to set up a mailing list.

Focus solely on completing your MVP.

List your requirements, then narrow them down further by weeding out anything that is not fundamental to your MVP. Rearrange them in order of importance so you can work on each requirement one-by-one.

Every task you finish should move you a little closer to the final website MVP.

Keep your designs simple and keep moving forward.

Keep everything as simple as possible and never overcomplicate things. If this is your first time creating a website, you are probably choosing your design concepts based on what you THINK your audience likes, not what your audience looks for.

But you won’t get it right the first time. As things progress, you will gradually learn more about your business. This is when you should start making changes to your design and message, tailoring it to suit the actual needs of your audience.

So don’t spin around in circles trying to decide which combination of font, color, and layout you should use. Pick something simple and sensible and move on.

And don’t spend too much energy on any single task, because it will cannibalize your time. Build incrementally and set concrete milestones with realistic deadlines. You want to get usable assets / deliverables out of each stage. This is especially important if you are hiring an agency or a web designer to build you a website.

Structure for serial, incremental results

… think about it this way: if a project involves eight tasks that will take roughly one month each, which would you rather have?

  • One task completed per month for eight months [i.e. working serially]
  • Nothing for seven months and then everything delivered at the end of month eight [i.e. working in parallel]

The one-at-a-time is better value for your money. At the end of month one, you have one asset that provides value to your business for the next seven months. In month two, you have more, and so on.

Parallelizing everything also puts you in a weak negotiating position. If the agency has eight tasks that are all 80% complete, it’s expensive for you to scope down the project or switch vendors. If you limit the agency to only two or three tasks at once, those are the only tasks at risk if the project goes south.

Lastly, it’s more mentally taxing to oversee eight subprojects at once. Every unfinished task occupies real estate in your mind. It’s better to knock them out in small batches than to drag everything out for the entire project.

Michael Lynch, Jul 2022

When something goes wrong, fix your process immediately.

If something gets delayed, or if you had to deal with an unexpected issue, analyze the cause and make adjustments to your process and planning immediately. And simply getting an explanation for what went wrong is not enough. Find a way to proactively prevent or at least reduce the chances of similar issues in the future.

This applies no matter if you are working alone or if you are hiring someone else. And if you do work with someone else, communication is paramount. There is nothing more important than having everyone up-to-date and on the same page.

When something feels obfuscated or unclear, point it out and request clarification. There are no stupid questions… unless you neglected to do your own homework / due diligence. In which case, ask your questions anyway. An admission of neglect is still better than miscommunication or no communication at all.

Otherwise, you might end up like Michael Lynch, who lost eight agonizing months and had to shell out a total of $46,000 for a “simple” 3-page website redesign. It was initially quoted to cost four weeks and at most $7,000 by his unnamed agency.

Design responsively for mobile screens.

There are more people browsing on phones and tablets than on computers and laptops. So make sure your website can adapt to all screen sizes small and large.

A chart illustrating the global market share of desktop VS mobile usage between 2011 to Oct 2022. Image and usage data provided by Statcounter.
A chart illustrating the global market share of desktop VS mobile usage between 2011 to Oct 2022. Image and usage data provided by Statcounter.

Website speed is kind of important.

Mobile phones generally load websites more slowly than desktops.

In Feb 2017, Google published a study which reveals that “53% of mobile site visitors leave a page that takes longer than 3 seconds to load.” Yet the average time it took to fully load a mobile page back then was 22 seconds.

Google revisited the study a year later and found that the average time it takes to fully load a mobile landing page has dropped by 7 seconds, but an average of 15 seconds is still too slow. If your website takes more than 10 seconds to load on mobile, the chances a visitor will abandon your site is increased by at least 123%.

So it is quite important to learn how to optimize your websites and get your page load speeds up to scratch, preferably in less than 3 seconds. There are plenty of optimization guides specific to each website builder, so I will not discuss them here.

But don’t overdo it, because you get diminishing returns. Fast load speeds is just a means to an end. Focus on building a proper business, not just a speedy website.

Side note: You can use online tools like GTmetrix, Pingdom, and Google’s very own PageSpeed Insights to analyze the load speed of your website pages.

Edit access and administrative permissions.

After going on a such long-winded spiel regarding website ownership, it would be remiss of me to not discuss administrative and/or editor access to the website backend. This is generally a non-issue if you build your own websites, because you would be the only person with any access to your site.

Side note: Well… this is not completely true. Your website host might be able to go in and edit your website backend regardless. But they will usually refrain from doing so without explicit permission from the website owner, i.e. you.

The key thing to note here is “usually”.

If a host decides to make unauthorized changes to your website without explicitly asking for your permission, move away and never look back. It is unacceptable behaviour and is an egregious breach of security and privacy.

Unfortunately, some premium website hosts (e.g. “managed” WordPress hosting) condone such practice. E.g. WPEngine has a list of disallowed plugins which they will forcibly remove from your website after issuing you a warning. Those plugins are disallowed for good reason, but that shouldn’t give them the right to touch their user’s websites without consent. It’s just common decency.

This discussion mostly concerns cases where someone else is hired to build and host a website for you, i.e. an independent freelancer or an agency. Certain website hosting companies might also offer custom website design and hosting services.

And the main point of contention is this:

Should a website owner / client be allowed to make changes to their own site?

Speaking from the perspective of an agency or a web developer, most careless or inadvertent changes made to a website can be extremely destructive.

  • The client might decide to make their own edits and changes that are visually inconsistent with the original branding. They destroy the look and feel of the website, but they blame it on the original creator for an “unprofessional design”.
  • The client might see a prompt for a software update and click on it without making a backup, or creating a staging website for testing. And the update just so happens to cause a conflict that crashes the website permanently.
  • The client might install a bunch of add-ons / plugins that are vulnerable / poorly maintained, creating security holes and performance issues that brings down their website. Fixing and cleaning up such websites can be really difficult.

Nobody would leave the keys of a truck to a reckless teenager with zero driving experience. Why should a developer hand over the keys of a website to someone who doesn’t know anything about website design and maintenance?

Isn’t that just begging for trouble?

This is why some agencies and even freelancers prefer to retain sole control of the sites they built. Every change a client wishes to make has to go through them first and foremost for approval and adjustments. But they would usually charge a monthly retainer fee or some kind of website maintenance / care package for the trouble. And these fees can get quite expensive if you have a tight monthly budget.

On the other hand:

  • Once a website has been handed over, the owner should be free to tinker and do anything they please. They paid for it, and it is now their property. A developer should not hold on to the keys of someone else’s property. It’s just common sense.
  • No developer wants to be harassed by constant requests to make small edits and changes to the website anyway. Especially when there is little financial incentive.

So the ideal answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.

One solution would be to grant limited edit access to the site. Website building tools like WordPress has built-in user roles with varying access levels, which can be further augmented using plugins to allow fine-grained controls of what a user can and cannot do. For example, the client could be granted edit access to certain pages and blog posts, but will not have access to website theme or plugins.

Another approach would be to give administrative access to everything, but the client is cautioned about the dangers of making changes or additions to the site. If possible, the client should be educated on what changes can be made safely and what changes might cause aesthetical, technical, performance, or security issues. The client is treated like a responsible adult, and is expected to act like one.

No matter what you might prefer, access permissions should always be clarified and communicated ahead of time, before the start of any website building project.

A “finished” website is only the first step in your journey.

Because your website will never truly be complete.

Once your MVP is done, it is time to work on something else. Blog post articles. Videos and graphics. Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Advertising and social media. Website and marketing analytics. Landing pages. Email newsletters. Lead magnets and other downloadables. Payment processing. Products and courses.

There are plenty of things we need to do and learn as we continue to improve our website and business. It’s a long journey ahead – a website is merely just the start.

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